This article is intended for researchers that are visiting Mexico City for the first time. Although this article is primarily based on my experiences in Mexico City, Morelia, and Puebla, I think these tips will help anyone traveling in Mexico in general.
Your Best Friends While in Mexico City
The first thing you are going to want to do when you are in Mexico City is find a Sanborns. This chain of stores will be some of your bestfriends while in Mexico’s Federal District. Sanborn’s has clean, free, and safe restrooms. Moreover, Sanborns stores have ATM machines that are not only safe, but also offer competitive rates on fees. Lastly, Sanborns also sell calling cards, water and other supplies for travelers.
Another store you are going to want to look for is OXXO and 7-11 (yes like the US). This chain of convenience stores has competetive prices on water, snacks and even junk food. OXXOs are all over Mexico City and they are usually open 24/7.
- This is a great place to buy pepto bismol, advil etc. late at night when pharmacies are closed
Get a cellphone!
- Once you are serious about researching abroad you will either get a “world phone” or switch to a US phone company that uses GSM technology for their mobile devices. Another option is a cheap “burner” phone which you can buy for under 20 USD in the Plaza de la Tecnología. A third option would be to purchase a mid or high range smartphone for a Mexican provider. I don’t like this idea because you end up with a phone you can’t use in the US unless you pay extra to unlock it since Mexican phone companies do not unlock phones for free.
- If you are on T-Mobile, MetroPCS, or AT&T you can request to have your phone unlocked (meaning that it can take a SIM card from any phone provider as long as it is the correct band. Luckily, Mexico and the US use the same bands.
- As long as your phone is unlocked, it will work in Mexico. I have tried the big three companies in Mexico, Telcel, Movistar, and Virgin Mobile Mexico. Out of the three I would not recommend Virgin (horrible reception and slow internet when you do have reception), and Telcel and Movistar are a toss-up depending on your needs. Telcel is the undisputed champion of wireless communication in Mexico. Their 4g is fast, and the reception is great. The one drawback is their higher prices and relatively poor customer service.
- Depending on the length of your stay you will want to decide between a prepaid plan or a postpaid plan.
- Prepaid plans are very easy to get, you simply buy a sim card, add airtime and you are ready to rock.
- Postpaid plans are a better deal, but they are a hassle to get. Probably not worth the trouble unless you planning on staying in Mexico for three or more months.
- Click here for more tips on how to communicate to the US from Mexico
Simple Rules That Will Keep You Healthy and Safe
1) Do not drink water or have iced beverages, unless the water is purified and sealed.
-Mexico’s water is not potable out of the tap. Do not drink water in the shower. Ice made from tap water contains the same bacteria in water, and it melts into your drink. It is safe to wet your toothbrush with tap water and to rinse your mouth, unless you have a compromised immune system.
2)Only eat at restaurants that are busy.
There are two main reasons:
-If its full, that means the food is good and the place has built a good reputation.
-If the restaurant is full, that means the food is moving and isn’t sitting around for too long.
3)Do not eat vegetables or fruit, unless you are certain purified water was used to clean them, or they are cooked long enough to kill bacteria.
-Anything that comes into contact with tap water is a potential hazard, thus raw vegetables have to be cleaned carefully using the vinegar method or other products (preferably without harsh chemicals).
4)Avoid wearing shorts and sandals (men and women).
- Although some Mexicans do wear these items, not very many do, especially when conducting daily business in the city, or on the Metro or other forms of public transit. You want to attract the least amount of attention as possible.
- If you are hanging out around your hotel or apartment, shorts and sandals are just fine. A little walk around your block or a quick errand shouldn’t be a big deal. I would just advise against wearing shorts on the metro or metro bus.
6)Keep a firm grip on your bag if its a purse or messenger, and preferably wear it towards the front of your body. If you wear a backpack, when in large crowds use only one strap and keep one hand on the bag. Keep valuable items such as wallets, money, camera etc. in your front pockets.
- If you stay in well-lit, populated areas, your only fear will be pickpockets and bag snatchers. If you keep your wallet in your front pocket and your bag firmly gripped, you should be okay.
- Like most large cities, Mexico City is as safe as you make it. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, and Paris can present dangers to its residents and tourists if precautions are not taken.
7)Avoid isolated and/or empty streets.
-The likely hood of one being mugged, increases exponentially in isolated areas or streets.
9)When asking for directions, avoid asking police officers.
- I have found myself getting lost many times after asking a cop for directions. I prefer to ask Oxxo employees or hop into a safe environment and use my phone for directions.
- Cops in Mexico City are great people, but they are often shuffled around the city, thus they do not know where certain streets or landmarks are.
10)Only take Taxi’s that you call, never take a street cab.
- “Pirate cabs” are on the streets sometimes, looking for victims. Said cabs look like “official” cabs, and unsuspecting victims get on-board and are robbed. Have your hotel call you a cab, or call one yourself.
- Another safe and cheap alternative is Uber. Keep in mind that Uber only works in Mexico City at the moment.
11) Use a money belt and distrbute your money on your person.
- When arriving to Mexico City or any other town keep the majority of your money, credit cards, and passport in a money belt. I personally use the Eagle Creek Travel Gear Hidden Pocket. This works great for travelers that use belts, and keep their belt line covered virtually most of the time.
- Most days I carry a couple hundred pesos in cash, and leave the rest of my cash and cards in a safe place. I do not carry a money belt everyday.
- Some people swear by always carrying a 500 peso bill in a specific spot so that if they get mugged they can sacrifice that bill and walk away unscathed. Many believe that 500 MXN is the sweet spot to satiate an assailant.
12) Avoid Carrying any electronics that you do not need.
- Why carry stuff that might be stolen, if you do not even need it?
- When I am going to the archives and need some of my gear I typically head straight there, and straight home when I am done. I then unload all of the non-essential items to mitigate loss in case a mugging occurs.
As I mentioned earlier, the Metro will be one of your best friends in Mexico City. Click here to visit their webpage for more information on hours of operation and routes.
The first thing you are going to want to do is download and print a color version of the Metro map. Make sure that you have this map with you at all times.
The metro runs in the direction in each line’s title, so for example the blue line runs to “Cuatro Caminos” or “Taxquena,” you are going to want to take the metro in the direction towards the stop you wish to head. Simple enough. Each trip costs 5 MXN.
The Metro will get packed, and it can get very hot an uncomfortable. This usually only occurs during rush hour. Simply ride with your back pack facing forward so you can always keep your eyes on your belongings, and you will be fine. During peak hours the front cart is reserved for women and children under the age of 12.
Check their page for more info, but here are the basics:
- Each trip costs 6 MXN.
- You need a “metro card” to get on-board, you cannot pay cash
Click here for the fine-print, these are the essentials:
- The annual plan is the best bang for your buck.
- This plan requires a Mexican debit or credit card, it doesn’t have to be in your name, but it will get charged if you use your bike for too long. If you can find a friend that has a Mexican card, and trusts you enough to put it on your account, go for the annual plan.
- The annual plan requires you to visit a module and bring the following:
- a copy of your passport or visa
- fill out an application and sign a contract
- pay 400 MXN
- You get 45 minutes to ride your bike from one station to another.
- After you return a bike, you have to wait 5 minutes before you can take a new one.
- Not all parts of the city have stations, so download the app or check the map on their webpage to see if it is convenient to take an ecobici for your trip.
- Wear a helmet and a reflective visit. The latter is especially important at night, the former is always invaluable. If you need to purchase bicycle accessories visit the bike district on calle San Pablo. I would advise readers to only visit this area during the day.
— Edward Polanco (@eapolanco) November 22, 2015
Download the app, call your ride, and be on your way. Many Fulbrighters swear by Uber and say that it is very safe, and the app is much cheaper than a sitio cab or radio-taxi.
Places to Eat and Drink in Mexico City and Puebla
- You can’t go wrong with any pick, I like the bean sauce.
Zona Rosa, DF
- Salon Corona
- The original location is actually in the Centro Historico, but in my opinion this is the best location. Get the tacos de pastor con piña.
- Casa de Toño
- This place is simply fantastic. The pozole con pollo or maciza is a flawless option. The flautas de papa are also very good.
Centro Historico, DF
- Cafe de Tacuba
- Go for the tamales and hot chocolate.
- El Perro Negro (They have other locations as well)
- The rising sun pizza is killer.
- El Tlaquepaque
- Torta Tapatia is for those that love taste, and meat.
- Tacos de Canasta “Los Especiales”
- I love the tacos de papa.
- Cafe Santo Domingo
- Chilaquiles con Arrachera is the best choice here.
- Get the tacos de pastor and ask for the meat to be extra crispy.
- Antigua Taquería la Oriental
- I always go for the tacos arabes.
- Cemitas la Poblanita
- Cemitas are a poblano invention and tradition. This is one of the best places in the center. I always get the cemita de milanesa de cerdo. The cemitas here (and most places) are pretty huge, I suggest you get it cut in half and share it with a friend. Another tip: the first time you try cemitas, ask for the papalo on the side. Not everyone likes papalo, and it can ruin your meal if you end up not liking it.
Things to Always Have in Your Bag and/or Pockets:
When possible try to avoid carrying huge bags. Backpacks are common in Mexico, but most Mexicans do not walk around with giant backpacks and cameras around their necks. Use a small backpack or messenger to carry essentials for trips around town, and keep your camera tucked away until you need it. You do not want people to think you are carrying expensive items on your person or in your bags. Here are some things to take with you:
- Metro Map (or digitally on your phone)
- Water bottle
- Map (digitally on you phone)
- Metro Card
Things To Pack For Mexico
The way you pack, will depend on the length of your trip. Below I discuss my approach to packing for a short trip. Check this article for tips on packing for a longer trip.
Towel. I suggest a compact travel towel such as this one. They dry quicker than regular towels, and they are extremely compact. Not all hostels or hotels provide towels, and if they do, they are not always the freshest.
Tooth Brush: If it is electric or new, if your toothbrush is looking kind of old and you need some space in your bag, buy a new one in Mexico.
Clothing. I personally pack light and bring only enough clothing for four days, I then find a laundry place and get my clothing washed for about four bucks. I typically pack clothing I do not mind leaving behind if I have to, that way I can load up on books and gifts. The only exception is one nice button-down shirt and a tie. You can throw a button-shirt and tie together with jeans, and bam, you are ready to meet with professors, curators or go to a conference.
Loofah: These scrubbers are light and take up little space. More importantly, it is hard to find a good loofah in Mexico unless you pay a pretty penny.
Any products that are for your special needs, for example: sensitive skin products. These type of products might be difficult to find in Mexico, especially exactly like the ones you need.
Rubber Sandals. These come in handy for showers and restrooms. (these can also be purchased at an affordable price at Wal-mart or other stores)
Empty Duffel bag. I like to pack as light as possible, but taking an empty duffel bag allows you to stock up on gifts and books, and then check either your original bag or the duffel bag.
Some Things You Do Not Need to Pack for Mexico City:
Toiletries. Wal-Mart in Mexico has almost all the same products that they sell in the US. In order to pack lightly, I typically buy my supplies in Mexico, its cheaper and easier than buying little travel bottles and dealing with TSA. Of course the only exception would be the aforementioned “special needs products.”
Must Have APPs in Mexico City
- WhatsApp Messenger
- Use this to communicate with other individuals that have the app installed on their phone.
- Mi Policia
- This app gives you the information of the officers in your quadrant. If an emergency occurs you can call them directly instead of having to call the station.
- This app will help you locate stations and manage your account.
- Red Cross Earthquake App
- Most of you should know about the monstrous earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985. Most chilangos over the age of 30 carry that event deeply cemented in their minds. They would be the first to tell you that it is important to know if an earthquake is coming. Get the app!
If you have any suggestions or ideas, you can email me or leave them as a comment. I appreciate any contributions.